The Spying Game Episode 4, Sex and Special Agents
JODHI MAY: From the SPYSCAPE Podcast Network. This is The Spying Game. Over this season of The Spying Game, Rory Bremner will be joined by a mix of experts in the field of deception and fellow enthusiasts from the world of entertainment as they attempt to sort the Moscow Rules from the Hollywood fabrication.
RORY BREMNER: Hello and welcome to The Spying Game. I'm Rory Bremner, comedian, mimic, spy enthusiast, and professional liar. I spent my whole life intrigued by spy stories - whether real or fictional - from George Smiley to George Blake. From Kim Philby to Kim Kardashian. But she's not a spy? How do you know? Because that's the whole point. We're not supposed to know. These are the people who work in the shadows, using false identities, trading secrets, and leading double lives. I've heard about microfilms hidden inside tampons. Antacid tablets are used to arrange clandestine meetings. I've even been told at a party about a remote control spy cat. In this episode, I'm joined by The 355 director, Deadpool producer, and Sherlock Holmes and Mr. & Mrs. Smith writer Simon Kinberg, and former clandestine CIA operative Amaryllis Fox. Each week we're tackling topics including double agents, disguise, and betrayal. This time on The Spying Game it's...
JODHI MAY: Sex and Special Agents.
AMARYLLIS FOX: It's a very lonely job. You have circle upon circle upon circle of people who are farther and farther away from your truth. There you are in like the central prison circle, and there's no one in there with you.
SIMON KINBERG: I do feel like part of the appeal of playing a spy for actors is that it feels so second nature to them that they do feel a kinship with spies.
AMARYLLIS FOX: One of the things we forget is how incredibly young the people who do this work are and always have been. And in part, that's because the most challenging operations are often given to the youngest officers because they haven't been out in the field long enough for anybody to suspect what they do for a living. The scariest part of the work that I did is wading into the worldview of the person that you perhaps hate and fear most in the world and actually giving it the time of day.
RORY BREMNER: Now, if you conjure up an image of a spy, you're likely to think of Ethan Hunt, George Smiley, Jason Bourne, or James Bond when they're up on the big screen or in our literature. Y chromosomes are definitely the majority. And if a female secret agent does pop into your mind, it's likely to be a cliched, sexualized representation like Pussy Galore or Foxy Cleopatra. But in the real world, the history of spying is full of exceptional women. From Virginia Hall, Mata Hari, Melissa Norwood, and Agent 355, through to my first guest today, Amaryllis Fox. I have to start with the name Amaryllis. So exotic. Almost sounds like a character in a Bond film. Also very memorable and distinctive, which might not be what you want if you're undercover.
AMARYLLIS FOX: I always say that Amaryllis is a lot better as a grown-up. I was not crazy about that name as a kid. My mother's name is Lalage, which means Cheerful Babbler.
RORY BREMNER: Wow.
AMARYLLIS FOX: And yet she still gave me a name that no one can pronounce, which is from both Homer and Horace, and is really impossible when you were a child, especially a child who moves every year of your life to a new school.
RORY BREMNER: So when you go undercover, take on a different name. You have to go the full Daniel Day-Lewis and take on all that that entails.
AMARYLLIS FOX: Actually, I remember in training the first time that we did a training exercise that involved how to deal with alias docs. And we were given our training alias and the first name of my training alias was Gloria. And in the middle of the night, like 2 am, we went to quite a large airport at a time when no foreign flights were coming in, and they allowed the training course to use passport control there to do training exercises. So you would come through passport control with your alias docs and be asked to defend your alias identity. And I was maybe, like, three months into the training program. And I remember the guy saying, “Oh, your name's Gloria. You must love that song.”
RORY BREMNER: Oh, the Laura Branigan song.
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah, exactly. And I didn't know the lyrics to the song. You can't just memorize the birth date and memorize the whatever. You've got to be that person and know all of the weird things that they would know if that were their name.
RORY BREMNER: But am I right in saying it wasn't your first intention to be a spy at all?
AMARYLLIS FOX: It's funny because I never wanted to go into the spy game. I had absolutely no interest in it. Conflict, warfare, lying, none of that stuff. I wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to be a journalist because I felt this…’ daylight is the best disinfectant’ idea. And I had been assigned a senior year project. I came back to the United States for my last year of high school, and I'd been assigned a project pretty much because I skipped a day of school to go hear my favorite theologian talk at the Smithsonian. And when I came back, all of the senior projects had been picked. So I got the one on the list that no one had picked, and it was Aung San Suu Kyi and the political situation in Burma. And I ended up taking a year before going to Oxford to work in the refugee camps on the Thai Burmese border and decided, “Hey, kid, you want to be a journalist. There are a hell of a lot of stories here.” So I decided to cut my teeth as a baby aspiring journalist. While I was there, I went and interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest as a journalist, not as an intelligence officer.
RORY BREMNER: Eighteen.
AMARYLLIS FOX: As an 18-year-old kid who wanted to be a journalist and ended up getting arrested, getting deported, but getting the film out and airing the interview.
RORY BREMNER: Okay. So you do head to university at Oxford and in a scene which could always be lifted directly from the pages of a le Carré novel, a British professor actually tries to recruit you, but instead, you head back to America where you become a spy for them instead. Why did you turn us down?
AMARYLLIS FOX: This was just in no way interesting to me. I've been a peace activist since I could speak. And there was a lot more appeal to telling stories of hardship and atrocity and things that could and should change on the front page of a newspaper than in an intelligence report that a few dozen or a few hundred people would see. Then 9/11 happened. That was leading into my last year at Oxford, but I was still home in D.C. because Oxford starts quite late in the year. And to me, it brought back a lot of my earliest loss, which was my best friend in third grade, Laura, who was on the flight that went down over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was an act of terrorism. She and her sister and both of her parents died on their way home for Christmas. Yeah, I'd never really lost anyone. I knew of the concept of death, but I'd never lost anyone that I really loved and had to realize that they wouldn't be there. When I went back to school and we played Recorder, and she was my Recorder partner, and I first tackled the idea of death and the idea of terrorism and was introduced to those ideas together. And a lot of that came back to me after the September 11 attacks. And then my journalism hero, who was a writer named Daniel Pearl for The Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and then ultimately beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 right at the beginning of the year, which I actually think in a weird way unsettled me even more than September 11, because he had been so profoundly committed to these ideas of pluralism and storytelling being a way for us to put ourselves in one another's shoes and had been, though, an Israeli, an incredibly compassionate advocate for the Islamic world. And the fact that he could have been taken and made to say these really hateful things right before he was killed and left an extraordinary wife and an unborn child, that felt like a threat to the worldview that I had more than more even than maybe 9/11. So that was what started it. I ended up going to the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown to study the causes of terrorism, to try to understand this boogeyman. And that was where I first talked to a CIA officer and ended up going into the recruitment process.
RORY BREMNER: So you ended up getting married to another CIA operative. Why do spies always marry other spies? Anyway, you're living together abroad, which is the perfect segway to my next guest because there's a film about married spies played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Of course, who else? And it was the brainchild of a writer, producer, and director who spun stories from the banks of the River Nile to the surface of Mars. Simon, welcome to you. How did you find yourself drawn to the spying game?
SIMON KINBERG: Obviously, my path is entirely different than Amaryllis' path, which is far more fascinating than mine. But I grew up loving lots of different kinds of movies. I would say, for me, the foundational films that got me inspired to be a filmmaker were the Star Wars' movies and the James Bond movies. I loved the Bond films. And for so many different reasons, but probably a lot of the reasons that everybody loves the Bond films. Those movies have absolutely no connection to reality. They're a pure escapist cartoon, and I don't think they pretend to be anything other than Ian Fleming pretends for them to be - anything other than pulp storytelling. For me, I was not ever a spy and a...
AMARYLLIS FOX: Or so you say.
RORY BREMNER: Oh, great cover.
SIMON KINBERG: Well, I think if you watch movies, you can see Mr. Smith particularly. I have absolutely no idea. But I approach every movie regardless of what it is, even if it's a superhero movie. Obviously, there aren't real superheroes, but I approach every film wanting to understand the underpinnings, the psychology of the characters, and as much reality as possible, even if the reality doesn't necessarily make it into the movie. It's interesting, the story you just told, about being Gloria. For Mr. Mrs. Smith, that was a film that I really conceived as a mash-up between the spy genre and the romantic comedy. Obviously, it's a love story between a married couple who have fallen out of love, and through trying to kill each other and hunt each other, fall back in love with one another. And it's classified as a spy movie. But in truth, we never talk about what organizations they are spies for, that they're not intelligence officers, that they don't belong to any government agency. But, yes, there's a lot of spycraft. And I think because of that and because of the shorthand that people approach movies with, it goes into the spy genre.
RORY BREMNER: So how did you research it? Presumably, you'd have had to study that whole thing of married spies living together.
SIMON KINBERG: Yeah, I did. And I spoke to a male spy who was married to a woman who was a spy. But that was really information that I could have as deep background, knowing that at the end of the day, probably superficially or on the surface of the film, there wouldn't be a lot of that reality in it. It's not like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or I'm trying to think of what a realistic Constant Gardener is.
RORY BREMNER: And did your latest film, The 355 set out to be more realistic?
SIMON KINBERG: Yeah, The 355 is significantly more realistic than Mr. and Mrs. Smith and it's probably more, I would say, in the spectrum of realism to fantasy if the most bombastic Bond films and to some extent Mission Impossible, all of which I love, are on the far end of the spectrum of unreality and in Zero Dark 30, let's say, as a 10, as a spy film. Right. So I think we're probably and Bourne is maybe the Bourne franchise is maybe a five, right? Or five or six somewhere in the middle because it has a realism to it.
AMARYLLIS FOX: I think one of the things that are often lost in the distinction is that in the intelligence business there is covert action and there is human intelligence-gathering. And those are two very, very different things. And actually, some of the things that we've dismissed as being completely unrealistic are not as radically unrealistic when you're talking about the covert action branch of intelligence-gathering that borders on the military and there's a lot of collaboration with Special Forces. That is very different from the human intelligence work of going and spending weeks, months, and years building a relationship with somebody so they can warn you when there's going to be another attack. And I think sometimes that distinction gets lost. But some of these films are reasonably accurate. They just present the intelligence world as being an entirely covert action when actually it's a very small percentage of what human intelligence is.
RORY BREMNER: Amaryllis, when we spoke to people in Special Forces, they said MI5 and MI6 tend to do the information-gathering. But when they want something more dramatic done, such as someone killed, for example, that's when Special Forces come in. And actually, very rarely do those two different entities meet. Is that accurate in your experience?
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah. I mean, I think that those lines at different times in history, for different historical reasons, have been slightly muddled and certainly after 911 with the personnel surges. That was a period where I think those lines got a little more muddled. And there were officers in my class at the Farm who were qualified to go and do the most subtle, most nuanced cocktail party with the Russian defense minister work and instead got ‘surged’ to Afghanistan or to Iraq and therefore were never able to do that work again because they were exposed to the liaison. And so that muddying of the lines does happen. It certainly happened before the Church Commission in ways that were much more associated with abuses of power in this country. But I think that, at its best, human intelligence work is actually in some sense a secret diplomacy where both parties - the intelligence officer and the source that they're building a relationship with - know what they're doing and are knowingly putting their lives in one another's hands in order to prevent a particular attack or provide a piece of important information, rather than the movie scene where you're taking a photo while the person is in the other room or things like that. That's a lot less of what actually is done.
RORY BREMNER: Simon, as a director, you must be sitting thinking, “How do I make a movie out of that? Where's the tension?”
SIMON KINBERG: Yeah, I mean, I think it's probably the reason why most of what we call spy movies or spy thrillers tend to focus on covert action, and they don't focus on intelligence-gathering. Zero Dark 30 is actually a pretty good example of actually focusing on both. A lot of the time is spent on intelligence-gathering.
RORY BREMNER: But it doesn't lend itself to edge-of-the-seat, big-budget nail-biters, does it?
SIMON KINBERG: Yeah, or a series of franchises in movies where you're going back to really see. I think increasingly it's something that the Bourne movies started to undo a bit. But because James Bond is the gold standard of spy movie entertainment, the focus has been more on the action than it has been on the intelligence-gathering.
RORY BREMNER: So where does The 355 fit into the landscape? Where did it come from originally?
SIMON KINBERG: The impetus for that movie was Jessica Chastain and I were talking. And Jess, obviously, was in Zero Dark 30 and spent a lot of time doing an immense amount of research because she was playing a real person and obviously a very important person in an important mission. And she felt - and we both felt - that there was an under-representation in films of female spies and that it wasn't proportionate with the amount of, and the importance of, female spies in the real world. And so she and I, we were on the set of a different movie we were making together.
RORY BREMNER: Was that a superhero movie?
SIMON KINBERG: We met on The Martian, which we did together, and stayed friends. And then, The Martian is an interesting example. Obviously, it is not a spy movie at all, but it was an insane, intense amount of research. We had a lot of interplay with Nasa and with JPL, and they really helped us. But the point being, it was during an X-Men movie that she [Jess] had this idea. And she said, “What if we did a movie about female spies, plural, which itself is a relatively unique thing in the movie spy genre to have an ensemble of spies, right? As opposed to one.”
RORY BREMNER: Does that happen in reality, Amaryllis? Do agencies actually collaborate in the real world?
AMARYLLIS FOX: Absolutely. I mean, cross-agency is always a challenge. There are ridiculous rivalries between agencies and there are also, on a more serious note, differences in mission. If you collaborate with the Bureau, their end objective is eventually to be able to present evidence in court. And that means the chain of custody and those kinds of things are incredibly important to them. That is almost the polar opposite of foreign intelligence officers - as someone who is used to operating in a foreign theater, who knows these things will never come to court.
RORY BREMNER: So the idea of cross-border, cross-agency collaboration is perhaps stretching it a bit, right?
AMARYLLIS FOX: Different. Different operations and different missions. But no, it is certainly [happening] within the CIA, within an intelligence organization, with a foreign liaison whether it's the Brits or Jordanians or whoever it is that you're collaborating with. Collaboration is incredibly important in intelligence.
SIMON KINBERG: Our film, I think, where we get to our most fictional and the furthest away from the fact, is that we have a Chinese spy, a German spy, a British spy, an American spy, and a Colombian agent all working together on a single mission. And that, I think we all know, is highly unlikely. When we made the movie, we did an immense amount of research on actual spycraft, though the same people that we're consultants for Zero Dark 30 were the consultants for our film. And we also had some people that worked in computer intelligence. And so we had people who were writing dialogue for me in computer-speak that I don't know how to speak, and tried to make all of that as realistic as possible.
RORY BREMNER: Talking of collaboration, Amaryllis, you were married to a spy and living with him, obviously, but presumably, you had the same mission and the same briefing. I mean, you were briefed separately. Did you have to keep secrets from each other?
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, we actually were home-based in different offices and we were really doing different work.
RORY BREMNER: I've always wondered about this. Are you allowed to talk about work or is there a wall of secrecy between you regarding specific briefs?
AMARYLLIS FOX: There was a considerable wall of secrecy. It's a very lonely job, whether you're married or not. It's a very lonely job. You have circle, upon circle, upon circle of people who are farther and farther away from your truth and there you are in the central prison circle, and there's no one in there with you.
RORY BREMNER: So when you are undercover for a long period of time, as you were in Shanghai, of course, posing as an art dealer, do you lose yourself in the character? Do you have to almost recalibrate to remind yourself who you actually are?
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah. I mean, you definitely can. It's an enormous danger. So we're doing an adaptation of the book with Brie Larson playing the role. And Brie is a friggin' powerhouse. She could have, if she had chosen, to not only do this work but really do any work she wanted to. And she's enormously active in politics and activism and all kinds of things. But one of the reasons that we decided to do this together was our mind connection from the first moment we met. And we felt an enormous kinship with one another. And one of the things she said to me was, "I know this is going to sound crazy - because it's totally different from being undercover overseas - but I have had this same experience where I have been on location." She was talking about a film she shot in Hawaii, far away from anybody who actually knew her. "And everybody on set knew the version of me that was real. But it was still just the version of me that was not playing the character or the version that was in the trailer. But it still wasn't actually like me at home with my mom or with my friends. And, at the end of it, I would come home after months and I'd actually not even know who I was." And I think that there is real truth to that parallel. There are so many experiences that we all share, regardless of whether you're on the frontlines meeting with al-Qaida terrorists who are trying to acquire nuclear materials, which is what I did for a living, or you're here dealing with Covid parenting. But this idea of: who are you, you know? ‘Know thyself’ is over the Oracle of Delphi's door. It's been the challenge of human life forever. And it still is. And when I left, I had this idea that I would drive out of the Langley gates for the last time, and suddenly all the facades could drop and I could be totally, authentically myself. And it was going to be so great because, I mean, I joined when I was 22. I had never been an adult outside of this experience. That's one of the things we forget is how incredibly young the people who do this work are and always have been. And in part, that's because the most challenging operations are often given to the youngest officers because they haven't been out in the field long enough for anybody to suspect what they do for a living. They call it ‘eroding your cover’.
RORY BREMNER: Do you think another part of that whole thing of spies being quite young is that if you don't actually have a family and financial ties, you're almost more likely to ignore all the risks?
AMARYLLIS FOX: That's certainly the case. You have a sense of immortality when you're young. And I certainly had it when I was breaking into Burma before I even got involved in the intelligence business. You have a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, and a sense of immortality that I think is a lot harder to find once you have children and a little bit of perspective on life. But it's not a new thing. You go back and look at World War One and World War Two. You look at T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, and William Yale, who was his US counterpart. And these guys that shaped the entire geopolitical chessboard that we live with now were all in their 20s. And I think sometimes we forget that. But look, in the end, remembering who you are and why you're doing what you're doing is so critical to the work. At the Farm, they actually teach you meditation, which is so out of whack with everything else you learn.
RORY BREMNER: Well because you're under unimaginable pressure.
AMARYLLIS FOX: And it also just allows you to be quiet enough that you can hear yourself. And I think that can be difficult when you're in this constant game of pretend. And it's something that I've kept up. I left a decade ago. Now it's a completely different game from when I left. I'm sure none of the tradecraft that I learned is even relevant anymore, but that particular skill is very, very relevant.
RORY BREMNER: Now we all invent fake personas. I'm sure, Simon when you're at the helm of a film with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars - and you're being asked questions on set, left, right, and center about all sorts of different things - there's at least some part of you which is really thinking, “Well, actually, I don't really have a clue.” But they're all looking at you.
SIMON KINBERG: There was a posthumous book of Scott Fitzgerald's. It was actually like bits and pieces of The Last Tycoon that he didn't finish. And one of the things was, he described a director as someone who was standing out in the desert and there are five different mountains and they had to blow one up for the shoot. And they ask him, “Which one do you want to blow up?” And without knowing the answer at all, he points without hesitation, completely definitively at one, and says, “That one right there.” And so, I do think there's an aspect of that where you - and I'm sure it's true, because you're living in a life and death situation - so your split-second decisions are obviously far more important. But if people see uncertainty, and doubt, if people feel as though you don't know the answers and you have 100, 200-plus people looking at you for an answer, it does start to erode their faith in you and your vision for the film. And most importantly, that's for the actors, because the actors really want to feel like they're protected and that you're going to take care of them and guide them and not let them fall.
RORY BREMNER: Yeah, but as with spies, do you notice when you're directing a film and one of the actors is deeply immersed in the role, that they become a different person. You have to treat them differently. Do you have to adjust to that?
SIMON KINBERG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, with almost all great actors I've worked with over the years, there is that… I wouldn't even call it a transition, a morphing of the character with the person. And what percentage is the character, and what percentage is the person, shifts day-to-day. It's not consistent. It doesn't go 100% like Daniel Day-Lewis. I haven't worked with him, but it's a little bit here, it's a little bit there on certain scenes - they're tougher, more intense, maybe immersive scenes, and the actor loses themself more. And I do feel like part of the appeal of playing a spy for actors is that it feels so second nature to them that they do feel a kinship with spies.
AMARYLLIS FOX: And I mean, just to jump in on behalf of both actors and spies, I think it's not just lies and manipulation. It's almost the flip side of that, which is what I found to be the emotional jujitsu. And in many ways, actually, the scariest part of the work that I did is wading into the worldview of the person that you perhaps hate and fear most in the world and actually giving it the time of day genuinely asking yourself, “How could I wake up on a given Tuesday morning and think that it was not only a reasonable and moral thing to do to fly a plane into a building full of innocent people but that it was actually my moral duty.” And to ask that question, instead of just settling for that ‘they hate us because we're free’ narrative. That's like the McDonald's fast food of making everybody feel good about everything. [It] is really scary and it's really hard. But unless you really listen to and understand why the people who are attacking you are committing the acts of violence they are, you don't have a hope of making it stop. And I think what actors at the real peak of their craft, from my novice point of view, do, is also to ask themselves that question. [It] is not to judge someone or make them a caricature, but to actually climb inside their skin. And that can be a really difficult challenge. Everybody thinks they're the good guy.
RORY BREMNER: But some of the things that happened to you, Amaryllis, [you wouldn’t] get away with them in fiction. For example, when you were married to another spy and your housekeeper was a spy for the Chinese government, I mean, if you were making a drama, it would be a stretch too far. Simon, would the audience buy it?
SIMON KINBERG: I don't know. I mean, I think that's amazing… I didn't know. That's an extraordinary detail. And I hope that that's in your show because I actually think that could make for great drama as long as it was textured. I mean, I think it'd make for better drama in longer format storytelling than a feature film. I think the fact that...
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah, this is a series, this is a series for Apple.
SIMON KINBERG: I think the fact that you're doing a series gives you an opportunity to actually tell that story and to give it the time and the texture that it needs. I think as a subplot in a two-hour spy action movie it would depend on, obviously, the realism of the film. I could either see that being wonderful as a subplot or I could see it feeling like it was contrived.
RORY BREMNER: So Amaryllis, how are you finding that whole process of the dramatization of your life?
AMARYLLIS FOX: I'm very, very lucky to get to work with an amazing team on this. And they have been so curious. Curiosity is one of the most important characteristics any human can have, but certainly any storyteller. And the ability to say, “I don't know”, which I think as a society in general, as an aside, I think as a society we have really lost that ability to say, “I don't know, what do you think?” And I think that would really help us all out a lot if we could remaster. But look, what we set out to do here, together as a team, was to tell a story about that emotional jujitsu that you do in this work. And yes, there are moments of incredible physical danger and incredibly high stakes. And yet this willingness to sacrifice your own worldview and experience somebody else's - knowing that actually, you might not come back the same - is actually very high stakes.
RORY BREMNER: Of course it is. I mean, it's hard to think of a more dramatic situation.
AMARYLLIS FOX: When I was at the Agency, I participated in one of the kinds of exercises that we do, which is called ‘Red Teaming’. And Red Teaming started during the Cold War when you would spend six months in an underground bunker that was decorated to look like a Soviet bunker. And you only had access to Soviet media. All of your notebooks had the Soviet crest on them. And you spent six months channeling the Soviet leadership. And that ability to really become the enemy was what allowed the United States to know when or when not to push on the Berlin Wall. And it was so successful that it was re-upped after 9/11 to try to channel the al-Qaeda leadership. And I've participated in a few of those. And one of the real challenges - and I think this does make excellent drama - is the fact that when people come out, if they were very good inside, they are no longer trusted by their colleagues because their colleagues have just spent six months watching them actually become the worldview of the enemy. And they don't trust or believe that they're going to leave that at the Red Team door and that they're going to come back as fully red, white, and blue as they were before. So you almost are sacrificing your career by letting yourself fully immerse in this other worldview. And you're also acknowledging this idea that maybe what we all think is right and wrong is just about the media that we consume for six months. Yeah, right. Like maybe if anybody spent, in this cavern, six months listening to anybody else's worldview, they might come to understand them. All of that is very difficult and very interesting.
RORY BREMNER: Well, yeah, I suppose. Isn't it? Partly because we exist now in a world where facts are almost in some way not so relevant. It's about what people believe and the beliefs that they share with those people that are in their circle. You get this parallel universe.
AMARYLLIS FOX: I think we're entering an age where storytelling is going to end up having more impact on global security and global peace than any particular operation. So I'm grateful to both of you and all of this community for the work that you guys do to keep storytelling on track as a tool of empathy rather than as a weapon.
RORY BREMNER: Now, the history of spying is so full of extraordinary women, whether it's Mata Hari or Jonna Mendez or Virginia Hall or Agent Sonya. Yet, as we know on screen, the spying game has been incredibly male-focused over the years.
SIMON KINBERG: The actual phrase The 355 comes from a real thing that Amaryllis, I'm sure, knows about, which is the 355. The 355 was the designation, the code, for supposedly the first female American spy during the American Revolution. And they called her 355 rather than giving her a name or a code name even. And that's explained in the movie as someone that was forgotten and not acknowledged. And obviously, that's thematic to the film. But I do think that going back to a movie as ridiculous as Mr. & Mrs. Smith when we made that film, one of the things that was really important to us - and this was to some extent in terms of spy representation - and it was also important just in terms of a balance of male and female. We really wanted Angelina to be as deadly as Brad. And in fact, actually, I think she does more than Brad does in the film. I think Brad is actually the one who’s on the back foot for most of the movie. I think it is changing. I think - like the Amaryllis show - I think if you look at whether they were successful or not, the Jennifer Lawrence movie, Red Sparrow, Atomic Blonde, there are - regardless of their level of reality - there are increasingly more and more openness and even, again, something really wildly not real, Black Widow in the Marvel Universe, having her own movie and her being a spy and that actually being her superpower is that she's a spy. She doesn't have any actual superpower. So I do think it is slowly shifting.
RORY BREMNER: Do you think a film like The 355 could be a catalyst, recruitment aid in the same way that, I don't know, something like Top Gun was for the US Navy? I mean, could it actually help inspire women to go and sign up and apply?
SIMON KINBERG: I would love that. That would honestly be a bigger win to me than any box office or awards it could be given.
RORY BREMNER: But while cinema may have historically underrepresented women as we record this, it's a remarkable thing that in reality, the higher echelons of US intelligence are almost entirely women.
AMARYLLIS FOX: Yeah. And I think that's really encouraging. I mean, just on that question of women in intelligence I think there is a growing awakening in the intelligence community, not just in the US but around the world, that in many ways, human intelligence is uniquely well-suited to women. If you think of the military's set of solutions and the intelligence side of solutions as your two options when you're faced with an adversary, and you've exhausted your diplomatic options, if you're the president of the United States, you can order a military strike against that al-Qaeda base, or you can task an intelligence officer with going in and building a relationship with somebody there so that if that base is ever used against the United States in advance. And those are in many ways a masculine and feminine alternative path to resolving a conflict. Right. If you're faced with a challenge, the traditionally masculine approach destroys the challenge and the traditionally feminine approaches befriend the challenge, right? And I think the intelligence community has always benefited from female officers. But certainly, in the last 10 or 15 years, that acknowledgment has transitioned into being run by female officers. And right now, for the first time in history, the CIA is not only run by a woman but each of the subordinate divisions themselves is all run by women. So the entire senior leadership of the CIA right now is female. And that leaves me with such hope for the future of human intelligence.
RORY BREMNER: Talking of tropes that have fascinated filmmakers for generations, we want to get to the heart of one very thorny issue. Okay, whether it's men or women working in the field, here's the big one: Are spies allowed to have sex to get what they want?
AMARYLLIS FOX: It's one of the things that I think is really important for people to know. Not only is it against the rules, but it's also actually illegal and you can go to prison for it. So there is absolutely no situation, truly. And I'm not whitewashing here. This may have been different in the OSS days and in the early Agency days, and those rules do not apply to assets, so they don't apply to sources. Sources that work with officers may say, “I have this information because I slept with so-and-so,” but those sources are foreign nationals. The US intelligence officers that are employed by the intelligence community, whether they're male or female, are strictly, strictly forbidden from any sexual relationship. And it's not just for ethics. It's much more to protect them from the ability for somebody to turn around and blackmail them. Right? Like the reason that you take a polygraph, you're not allowed to take drugs. You're not allowed to do all kinds of things that normal people can.
RORY BREMNER: You're not allowed to take drugs?
AMARYLLIS FOX: No.
RORY BREMNER: So how do you manage to infiltrate and ingratiate yourself with drug gangs?
AMARYLLIS FOX: I never worked in the Latin American division, but I have that question, too. But anyway, no, all of those rules are in order to prevent those things from being used against you.
SIMON KINBERG: I will tell you that those are the rules of spies not having sex did not apply when we were making this.
AMARYLLIS FOX: Someone has a life.
SIMON KINBERG: On a limb and let everybody know that.
RORY BREMNER: Okay. So I wanted to ask each of you, what was the piece of spy fiction in your experience, Amaryllis or Simon, from your understanding of the world of espionage, what's the one that you think most accurately portrays the spying game?
SIMON KINBERG: I mentioned it before. I think Zero Dark 30, for me. I saw that film and I felt like I was watching something real. I mean, not just because it was based on a true story, but also because it felt like, as it was, that the person it was based on was a part of the process of making the movie from start to finish, and that there was a real interest from the filmmakers to tell that story accurately, and that even aspects of the film - I think that we would say, and you alluded to - are not being necessarily dramatic. They found ways and Kathryn Bigelow - such an extraordinary filmmaker - found ways to create tension out of silence and out of sitting at a computer or writing in a Sharpie on a piece of glass. So Zero Dark 30 for me is my high water mark for mainstream movie-making realism.
RORY BREMNER: Amaryllis, how about you?
AMARYLLIS FOX: I don't disagree with that. I think that Kathryn Bigelow is an incredible artist and I think that that's a strong answer for me. I think that Syriana is an incredible film in its addressing of the very heavy weight of moral complexity that falls on officers who are asked to do things in the field that they don't have the full context for and are not necessarily sure are actually in the national interest or whether or not there may maybe in someone's business interest or something else. I actually was asked this question at a dinner party by the person sitting next to me. Which film do you think, oh, you worked at the agency. Which film did you…? And I had no idea who this person was and I gave the same answer and it turned out to be Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Syriana, and he thought I was sucking up to him, which I was not. I actually didn't realize until after, like, four courses later - so some spy I am. He really held it close to the chest, who he was. But we've ended up collaborating on some things. And he's a fantastic writer. I think what he did with Traffic is very similar to that notion of really climbing into the multiple perspectives and not having any obvious antagonist, but actually realizing that everyone has some piece of the puzzle and no one is completely guilt-free. I think the muddled, lonely, difficult part of this work is that good versus evil is never quite as clear-cut as it is on the big screen.
RORY BREMNER: Oh, listen, thank you. I could listen to you talk all day about your respective careers, but I'm afraid here's where we have to leave it for today. So thank you both Amaryllis and Simon. Thank you for joining us on The Spying Game.
JODHI MAY: Next time. On SPYSCAPE, The Spying Game, Rory is joined by former Mossad operative Gad Shimron and the award-winning director of The Green Prince, Nadav Schirman.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: We are all spies. When somebody goes to the office and leaves his wife or husband and his family at home and goes to work, he puts on a mask. He becomes somebody else. He's not the same person that he's at home.
GAD SHIMRON: I had a permit from the government, from a sovereign government, to be a criminal.
NADAV SCHIRMAN: They sit him down in the chair and I start the interview and he starts crying. They never laughed at me again after that.
GAD SHIMRON: Forget James Bond. James Bond has nothing to do with the real world. In 90 minutes, he solves everything. Spying is mostly waiting. I've been interrogated. I've been shot at and other shaky moments in this. But it's all gone. They say, “Yesterday's history, tomorrow is a mystery.” That's why today's called ‘present’. So let's enjoy the present.
JODHI MAY: The Spying Game is available now wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen to episodes a week early for free by subscribing to *SPYSCAPE Plus* on Apple Podcasts.
Amaryllis Fox (pictured) was recruited by the CIA at the age of 21 in the aftermath of 9/11. After training, she was sent undercover as an art dealer to keep nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons out of the hands of terror groups.
Director Simon Kinberg, the man behind the movies The 355 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is a British-born American filmmaker. He is also known for his work on the 20th Century Fox X-Men film franchise.